This poem appeared first in National Poetry Review. I read it recently at Tasty Coco in Caldwell, NJ thanks to Rick Mullins‘ poetry series.
“When two species live together for a long time, each usually influences the genetically- conferred qualities of the other. People may have selected preferred abilities in the dog, but dogs too may have fostered their favorite qualities in people – not of course deliberately, but simply by giving people who used dogs better chance of surviving than people who did not.”
– The New York Times, November 22, 2002
The ones who could spare a scrap, ones who loved ear velvet,
those who were tired of picking up crumbs from the floor and didn’t mind a tongue,
are you one of them, from generations ago? Did your great-to-the-greath
grandmother refuse the men who kicked the dogs that cleaned the carcass
and kept away flies and rats and fleas and plagues? Maybe a hound
found your toddling grandpa after he wandered off in the late cold fog.
Of course those with watchdogs woke up before the bears ate them,
and they lived on to have more children than the ones who didn’t.
Soon the experienced stick thrower became the skilled spear thrower.
The frequent rump-scratcher enjoyed lower blood pressure and longer years.
Those who spooned with sleeping dogs lived warmer in skin tents. Think
of the sheep, O the lamb dinners and cabled sweaters, attributable to Rover.
But it goes further. We learned the break-its-neck headshake seen so often
in business meetings, where we practice sitting and giving our paws and staying.
We learned whistling well, fetching, retrieving. Our canine roots explain our best
salesmen, interns, graduate students, suitors. Not for nothing we call them dogged.
So when I say, “oh my goodness,” that goodness is shaggy, nudged
ancestrally by the wagging tail, the beseeching eyes, the nose flipping the forearm
of the hand that holds the newspaper. The mailman does not think about quiet dogs.
I forget who taught me and mine to lie on our backs with feet kicking.
Dog lovers excel at tug of war and learn to chew hard on what leashes us in.
We are less asthmatic, take thoughtful walks. We romp more, mope less.
The benefits of caring for old dogs continue, down through the helixes,
into a kinder future. We know that the shawl of the howl keeps us warm.